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ALEXANDER WILSON. [ONE of the most splendia works of Natural History ever produced is the American Ornithology' of Alexander Wilson, in nine folio volumes, full of coloured engravings. This work was published in the United States, from 1808 to 1813. No learned society gave it encouragement; no distinguished name in the world of science was its author. A poor Scotch pedlar, who had left his native country in the hope of bettering his fortune, was the writer and the artist who, unaided except by the general public support, produced the most superb book of its class that the world had then seen. Alexander Wilson was born at Paisley in 1766. He was apprenticed to a weaver, and afterwards worked as a journeyman at his trade. Subsequently he became a pedlar, and wrote verses whilst he rambled about the country, selling his wares and endeavouring to procure subscriptions for a volume of his poems. He was thus unconsciously laying the foundation for his great work. His early habits of poetical composition gave him a command of language; his wandering habits fitted him for the laborious journeys which he took through the great American continent. In the United States, he was weaver, pedlar, land-measurer, and schoolmaster. His taste for natural history was developed by Mr. Bartram, a celebrated botanist, and he was taught to draw by Mr. Lawson, an engraver. At length, in 1808, he published the first volume of his Ornithology.' With this volume under his arm he wandered from town to town, endeavouring to obtain subscribers with small success; but he persevered, sometimes rowing himself in a skiff upon the great rivers, at others plunging into the depths of the forests with his fowling-piece, and his scanty store of biscuits and dried beef. Whenever he shot a remarkable bird, he made a drawing of it and a description on the spot. His book soon came to have a European reputation. Well did he deserve his hard-earned fame. As a writer he has a merit which seldom belongs to systematic naturalists; his descriptions are at once accurate and brilliant. He looks at Nature with the eye of a poet; he describes with an exactness which might satisfy the most rigid classifier. Wilson died from a sudden illness in Philadelphia, in 1813. His book has been reprinted in several forms in this country.]
Among the many novelties which the discovery of this part of the western continent first brought into notice, we may reckon that of the Mocking-bird, which is not only peculiar to the new world, but inhabits a very considerable extent of both North and South America; having been traced from the states of New England to Brazil; and also among many of the adjacent islands. These birds are, however, much more numerous in those states south, than in those north, of the river Delaware; being generally migratory in the latter, and resident (at least many of them) in the former. A warm climate, and low country, not far from the sea, seem most congenial to their nature; accordingly we find the species less numerous to the west than east of the great range of the Alleghany, in the same parallels of latitude. In the severe winter of 1808-9, I found these birds, occasionally, from Fredericksburg in Virginia to the southern parts of Georgia; becoming still more numerous the farther I advanced to the south. The berries of the red cedar, myrtle, holly, cassine shrub, many species of smilax, together with gum berries, gall berries, and a profusion of others with which the luxuriant swampy thickets of those regions abound, furnish them with a perpetual feast. Winged insects, also, of which they are very fond, and remarkably expert at catching, abound there even in winter, and are an additional inducement to residency. Though rather a shy bird in the northern 2ND QUARTER.
states, here he appeared almost half domesticated, feeding on the cedars and among the thickets of smilax that lined the roads, while I passed within a few feet; playing around the planter's door, and hopping along the shingles. During the month of February I sometimes heard a solitary one singing; but on the second of March, in the neighbourhood of Savannah, numbers of them were heard on every hand, vying in song with each other, and, with the brown thrush, making the whole woods vocal with their melody. Spring was at that time considerably advanced; and the thermometer ranging between seventy and seventy-eight degrees. On arriving at New York, on the twenty-second of the same month, I found many parts of the country still covered with snow, and the streets piled with ice to the height of two feet, while neither the brown thrush nor Mocking-bird were observed, even in the lower parts of Pennsylvania, until the twentieth of April.
The precise time at which the Mocking-bird begins to build his nest varies according to the latitude in which he resides. In the lower parts of Georgia he commences building early in April; but in Pennsylvania rarely before the tenth of May; and in New York, and the states of New England, still later. There are particular situations to which he gives the preference. A solitary thorn bush; an almost impenetrable thicket; an orange tree, cedar, or holly-bush, are favourite spots, and frequently selected. It is no great objection with him that these happen, sometimes, to be near the farm or mansion-house: always ready to defend, but never over anxious to conceal, his nest, he very often builds within a small distance of the house; and not unfrequently in a pear or apple-tree; rarely at a greater height than six or seven feet from the ground. The nest varies a little with different individuals, according to the conveniency of collecting suitable materials. A very complete one is now lying before me, and is composed of the following substances. First, a quantity of dry twigs and sticks, then withered tops of weeds of the preceding year, intermixed with fine straws, hay, pieces of wool and tow; and, lastly, a thick layer of fine fibrous roots, of a light brown colour, lines the whole. The eggs are four, sometimes five, of a cinereous blue, marked with large blotches of brown. The female sits fourteen days; and generally produces two broods in the season, unless robbed of her eggs, in which case she will even build and lay the third time. She is, however, extremely jealous of her nest, and very apt to forsake it, if much disturbed. It is even asserted by some of our bird dealers, that the old ones will actually destroy the eggs, and poison the young, if either the one or the other have been handled. But I cannot give credit to this unnatural report. I know, from my own experience, at least, that it is not always their practice; neither have I ever witnessed a case of the kind above mentioned. During the period of incuba
tion neither cat, dog, animal or man, can approach the nest without being attacked. The cats, in particular, are persecuted whenever they make their appearance, till obliged to retreat. But his whole vengeance is most particularly directed against that mortal enemy of his eggs and young, the black snake. Whenever the insidious approaches of this reptile are discovered, the male darts upon it with the rapidity of an arrow, dexterously eluding its bite, and striking it violently and incessantly about the head, where it is very vulnerable. The snake soon becomes sensible of its danger, and seeks to escape; but the intrepid defender of his young redoubles his exertions, and, unless his antagonist be of great magnitude, often succeeds in destroying him. All its pretended powers of fascination avail it nothing against the vengeance of this noble bird. As the snake's strength begins to flag, the Mocking bird seizes and lifts it up partly from the ground, beating it with his wings, and when the business is completed, he returns to the repository of his young, mounts the summit of the bush, and pours out a torrent of song in token of victory.
The plumage of the Mocking-bird, though none of the homeliest, has nothing gaudy
or brilliant in it; and, had he nothing else to recommend him, would scarcely entitle him to notice, but his figure is well proportioned and even handsome. The ease, elegance and rapidity of his movements, the animation of his eye, and the intelligence he displays in listening and laying up lessons from almost every species of the feathered creation within his hearing, are really surprising, and mark the peculiarity of his genius. To these qualities we may add that of a voice full, strong, and musical, and capable of almost every modulation, from the clear mellow tones of the wood thrush to the savage scream of the bald eagle. In measure and accent he faithfully follows his originals. In force and sweetness of expression he greatly improves upon them. In his native groves, mounted on the top of a tall bush or half-grown tree, in the dawn of a dewy morning, while the woods are already vocal with a multitude of warblers, his admirable song rises pre-eminent over every competitor. The ear can listen to his music alone, to which that of all the others seems a mere accompaniment. Neither is this strain altogether imitative. His own native notes, which are easily distinguishable by such as are well acquainted with those of our various song birds, are bold and full, and varied seemingly beyond all limits. They consist of short expressions of two, three, or at the most five or six syllables; generally interspersed with imitations, and all of them uttered with great emphasis and rapidity; and continued, with undiminished ardour, for half an hour, or an hour, at a time.-His expanded wings and tail, glistening with white, and the buoyant gaiety of his action, arresting the eye, as his song most irresistibly does the He sweeps round with enthusiastic ecstasy-he mounts and descends as his song swells or dies away; and, as my friend Mr. Bartram has beautifully expressed it, "He bounds aloft with the celerity of an arrow, as if to recover or recall his very soul, expired in the last elevated strain." While thus exerting himself, a bystander destitute of sight would suppose that the whole feathered tribe had assembled together, on a trial of skill, each striving to produce his utmost effect; so perfect are his imitations. He many times deceives the sportsman, and sends him in search of birds that perhaps are not within miles of him, but whose notes he exactly imitates; even birds themselves are frequently imposed on by this admirable mimic, and are decoyed by the fancied calls of their mates; or dive, with precipitation, into the depths of thickets, at the scream of what they suppose to be the sparrow hawk. The mocking-bird loses little of the power and energy of his song by confinement. In his domesticated state, when he commences his career of song, it is impossible to stand by uninterested. He whistles for the dog; Cæsar starts up, wags his tail, and runs to meet his master. He squeaks out like a hurt chicken, and the hen hurries about with hanging wings, and bristled feathers, clucking to protect its injured brood. The barking of the dog, the mewing of the cat, the creaking of a passing wheelbarrow, follow, with great truth and rapidity. He repeats the ture taught him by his master, though of considerable length, fully and faithfully. He runs over the quiverings of the canary, and the clear whistlings of the Virginia nightingale, or red-bird, with such superior execution and effect, that the mortified songsters feel their own inferiority, and become altogether silent; while he seems to triumph in their defeat by redoubling his exertions.
This excessive fondness for variety, however, in the opinion of some, injures his song. His elevated imitations of the brown thrush are frequently interrupted by the crowing of cocks; and the warblings of the blue bird, which he exquisitely manages, are mingled with the screaming of swallows, or the cackling of hens: amidst the simple melody of the robin we are suddenly surprised by the shrill reiterations of the whip-poor-will; while the notes of the kildeer, blue jay, martin, baltimore, and twenty others, succeed, with such imposing reality, that we look round for the originals, and discover, with astonishment, that the sole performer in this singular
concert is the admirable bird now before us. During this exhibition of his powers he spreads his wings, expands his tail, and throws himself around the cage in all the ecstasy of enthusiasm, seeming not only to sing, but to dance, keeping time to the measure of his own music. Both in his native and domesticated state, during the solemn stillness of night, as soon as the moon rises in silent majesty, he begins his delightful solo; and serenades us the live-long night with a full display of his vocal powers, making the whole neighbourhood ring with his inimitable medley.
114.-CRABBE AND BURKE.
[IN a notice of George Crabbe, we have said that he was rescued from poverty by the kindness of Edmund Burke. The circumstances of this kindness are thus detailed in the interesting life of the Poet, by his son, the Rev. George Crabbe.]
It is to be regretted that Mr. Crabbe's Journal does not extend over more than three months of the miserable year that he spent in the city (1781). During the whole of that time he experienced nothing but disappointments and repulses. His circumstances were now, indeed, fearfully critical: absolute want stared him in the face: a gaol seemed the only immediate refuge for his head; and the best he could hope for was dismissing all his dreams of literary distinction, to find the means of daily bread in the capacity of a druggist's assistant. To borrow, without any prospect of repaying, was what his honesty shrunk from; to beg was misery, and promised, moreover, to be fruitless. A spirit less manly and less religious must have sunk altogether under such an accumulation of sorrows.
Mr. Crabbe made one effort more. In his "sketch" he says: "He did not so far mistake as to believe that any name can give lasting reputation to an undeserving work; but he was fully persuaded that it must be some very meritorious and extraordinary performance, such as he had not the vanity to suppose himself capable of producing, that would become popular, without the introductory probat of some well-known and distinguished character. Thus thinking, and having now his first serious attempt completed, afraid of venturing without a guide, doubtful whom to select, knowing many by reputation, none personally-he fixed, impelled by some propitious influence, in some happy moment, upon Edmund Burke-one of the first of Englishmen, and, in the capacity and energy of his mind, one of the greatest of human beings."
The letter which the young poet addressed to Burke must have been seen by Mr. Prior, when he composed his life of the great statesman; but that work had been published for nine years before any of Mr. Crabbe's family were aware that a copy of it had been preserved; nor had they any exact knowledge of the extremity of distress which this remarkable letter describes, until the hand that penned it was in the grave. It is as follows:
TO EDMUND BURKE, ESQ.
Sir-I am sensible that I need even your talents to apologize for the freedom I now take; but I have a plea which, however simply urged, will, with a mind like yours, sir, procure me a pardon; I am one of those outcasts on the world, who are without a friend, without employment, without bread.
"Pardon me a short preface. I had a partial father, who gave me a better education than his broken fortune would have allowed; and a better than was necessary, as he could give me that only. I was designed for the profession of physic; but not having wherewithal to complete the requisite studies, the design but served to convince me of a parent's affection, and the error it had occasioned. In April last I came to London, with three pounds, and flattered myself this would be sufficient to supply me with the common necessaries of life, till my abilities should procure
me more of these I had the highest opinion, and a poetical vanity contributed to my delusion. I knew little of the world, and had read books only; I wrote, and fancied perfection in my compositions; when I wanted bread they promised me affluence, and soothed me with dreams of reputation, whilst my appearance subjected me to contempt.
Time, reflection, and want, have shown me my mistake. I see my trifles in that which I think the true light; and, whilst I deem them such, have yet the opinion that holds them superior to the common run of poetical publications.
"I had some knowledge of the late Mr. Nassau, the brother of Lord Rochford; in consequence of which, I asked his lordship's permission to inscribe my little work to him. Knowing it to be free from all political allusions and personal abuse, it was no very material point to me to whom it was dedicated. His lordship thought it none to him, and obligingly consented to my request.
"I was told that a subscription would be the more profitable method for me, and, therefore, endeavoured to circulate copies of the enclosed proposals.
"I am afraid, sir, I disgust you with this very dull narrative, but believe me punished in the misery that occasions it. You will conclude that, during this time, I must have been at more expense than I could afford; indeed, the most parsimonious could not have afforded it. The printer deceived me, and my little business has had every delay. The people with whom I live perceive my situation, and find me to be indigent and without friends. About ten days since, I was compelled to give a note for seven pounds, to avoid an arrest for about double that sum, which I owe. I wrote to every friend I had, but my friends are poor likewise; the time of payment approached, and I ventured to represent my case to Lord Rochford. I begged to be credited for this sum till I received it of my subscribers, which, I believe, will be within one month; but to this letter I had no reply, and I have probably offended by my importunity. Having used every honest means in vain, I yesterday confessed my inability, and obtained, with much entreaty, and as the greatest favour, a week's forbearance, when I am positively told that I must pay the money, or prepare for a prison.
"You will guess the purpose of so long an introduction. I appeal to you, sir, as a good, and, let me add, a great man. I have no other pretensions to your favour than that I am an unhappy one. It is not easy to support the thoughts of confinement; and I am coward enough to dread such an end to my suspense.
"Can you, sir, in any degree, aid me with propriety? Will you ask any demonstrations of my veracity? I have imposed upon myself, but I have been guilty of no other imposition. Let me, if possible, interest your compassion. I know those of rank and fortune are teased with frequent petitions, and are compelled to refuse the requests even of those whom they know to be in distress; it is, therefore, with a distant hope I ventured to solicit such favour; but you will forgive me, sir, if you do not think proper to relieve. It is impossible that sentiments like yours can proceed from any but a humane and generous heart.
"I will call upon you, sir, to-morrow, and if I have not the happiness to obtain credit with you, I must submit to my fate. My existence is a pain to myself, and every one near and dear to me are distressed in my distresses. My connections, once the source of happiness, now embitter the reverse of my fortune, and I have only to hope a speedy end to a life so unpromisingly begun; in which (though it ought not to be boasted of) I can reap some consolation from looking to the end of it. I am, sir, with the greatest respect, your obedient and most humble servant. "GEORGE CRABBE."
Mr. Burke was, at this period, (1781,) engaged in the hottest turmoils of parliamentary opposition, and his own pecuniary circumstances were by no means very